“People say to me, do you get nervous? But the thing that lets me do my job so effectively is because I’m not doing it for me. I’m advocating on behalf of somebody else, so that empowers me. I feel like I’m really empowered as the deputy leader to help somebody else and elevate and support them. I’m a nurturer in that respect and that’s the way I like to do things,” Angela Rayner says. But would she like to become Labour leader one day? “At the moment, I’m really happy. I want to be Deputy Prime Minister, that’s what I want. That’s my aspiration.”
Ahead of International Women’s Day, I spoke to Labour’s chair and deputy leader about female leadership, misogyny in the movement and moves to boost the representation and power of women within the party. Asked for her thoughts on why Labour has never elected a woman to lead, she says: “The movement’s guilty as anyone when it comes to men in suits and thinking, ‘oh, that’s what leadership is’. If you asked a group of voters, what is a leader? A lot of them would probably come up and say ‘male’, and I think there’s a cultural thing around that.”
Rayner is optimistic about the future, however. “I think we will have a woman Labour leader. I definitely believe in that. And I think it will come definitely soon. But it’s not just about having women in one place, and then ticking that box and saying we’ve done it.” She says Keir Starmer “wants to see more women empowered in the movement” and has “given me quite a strong steer to make sure that happens”. The party chair has been working on formal mechanisms, such as pushing the use of all-women shortlists in local government and attracting women as police and crime commissioner candidates, while also saying she values informal methods.
“I’m absolutely convinced that we’ll have more women candidates coming forward in the next few years. And then by virtue of that, we will end up with a leader of the party that’s a woman. But I think everybody in the party, whether you’re male or female, just has to understand that encouragement and support and making way is key,” she says.
Has Rayner experienced misogyny since being elected as an MP in 2015, and where has it come from? “I have been told that I have a bit of a chip on my shoulder, so I can be a bit like, ‘did they say that because I’m a woman?’ No, but I’m quite feisty about it,” she adds. “It can be something minor. Sometimes you’re in a room, and everyone else will be given the opportunity to speak, and then you’ll still be like, ‘er I was trying to speak ages ago’.”
She offers another example: “When I went for selection, I was asked how I was going to deal with my work-life balance because I’ve got two young children… It doesn’t have to be hostile, sometimes it’s not meant in a hostile way.” Rayner tells me that “as a member, as chair of the party and as one of the most senior females in the party”, she feels it is her “duty” to “other people from going through that”.
Ensuring other women do not have these experiences requires a “cultural shift”, Labour’s deputy leader says. “There’s soft ways in which you do that, and then there’s hard ways in which you can do that, through organisational change.” Falling under the latter category, Rayner cites Organise to Win, the review of the party’s organisational structure that was undertaken by Bob Kerslake and that is now being implemented by general secretary David Evans.
She also refers to “the work that Jane Ramsay is doing”: Labour’s new senior adviser on standards and ethics is leading on the establishment of an independent complaints process, which must be up and running by December according to the legally-binding Equality and Human Rights Commission action plan.
It has been recommended that Labour should not stop at an independent disciplinary process but also create a new mechanism for whistleblowing within the party, whereby members can raise concerns about another without officially submitting a complaint. “I definitely want to make that happen,” Rayner replies. She expresses concern about situations in which a criteria is not met, and this leads to a perception that “the potential perpetrator is fine and the potential victim is somebody who had made it up”.
“These things are not as clear as that,” she says. “I want to find a mechanism that makes people understand how their behaviours can affect others, as well as have a mechanism that where it is clear-cut, we get rid of the people that are being horrible and shouldn’t be in our movement, absolutely. But often, there is a bit more complexity to it.”
Asked to what extent she believes misogyny is still a problem in the Labour Party and wider movement, Rayner replies: “I think the Labour Party is not immune to the society issues that we still have today.” She points to “my own prejudices and unconscious bias”, explaining: “I still feel bad that my husband does the lion’s share of the caring responsibility, that’s in my head. And it’s like, well, why do I feel bad? Why do I think it’s my responsibility to look after the kids? But it’s ingrained deep.”
There are people from which she expects bias, she adds, but it is more hurtful when it comes from within the movement. “When I was pregnant at 16, there was some Tory MP saying that girls from council houses like me, we’re just getting pregnant to get free housing and to live off the state. Which is infuriating, but I expect it from them. But if someone from my movement makes a comment that I think is misogynistic or prejudicial or discriminatory, I find that really disappointing, even more so, doubly disappointed, because I have a high standard for our movement.”
As a former trade union rep who came up through UNISON, was she shocked by the findings of the Karon Monaghan QC report that found the Labour-affiliated GMB trade union to be “institutionally sexist”? “I do think institutional sexism is a really serious finding in that report, and it’s something that I know the GMB executive has been looking at. And I hope that they continue to make improvements.” Noting that “there’s always room for improvement in our movement”, Rayner emphasises the need to “put systems in place to evaluate it”.
The party chair reveals of Labour: “We’re doing staff surveys, we’re employing a new director who is going to look at diversity and inclusion, and a new people and talent director. We’re focusing in our party on how we can change the culture to continually not just look at what we are now, but also measure it and then look at where we get to next. Because I believe in hard targets.”
She summarises one of the problems particular to the left, saying: “In the movement, I think sometimes it can be a blind spot for us, because we believe in those values, we want that for the people that we want to represent. I want that for my electorate, so you never think that your organisation could do that, because you believe everyone has those same values. But unfortunately, it can manifest itself in our movement. And we’ve seen it manifest itself in our movement.
“So you’ve got to be vigilant, and you’ve got to measure it. You’ve got to put systems in place to proactively move in the right direction, because otherwise you fall backwards. And we’ve seen that. Our work is never done when it comes to pushing forward on these matters.”